A stroll through Halle

Markt in Halle an der Saale

Halle an der Saale might be one of the largest German cities you’ve never heard of. In the little-visited eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, Halle was my home for three years during the 1990s. I was thrilled when I managed to talk my friend Kim into stopping by on our way back to Munich from Leipzig a few weeks ago. Continue reading

Road trip to Croatia: Rovinj

After Opatija we continued our journey along the Istrian coast, stopping for lunch in Pula and then landing in Rovinj for our last evening in Croatia.

I’m finding myself at a loss for words when it comes to Rovinj. The photos do a better job of communicating my thoughts.

Rovinj’s old town is on a small peninsula surrounded by deep blue sea and nearby islands. Its narrow, windy cobblestone streets are decorated with picturesque laundry and stray cats.

We booked at apartment with Casa Garzotto (which also has hotel rooms), and it did not disappoint. The renovated 400-year-old building offered a delightful mix of comfort and adorableness.

We also received excellent recommendations from the staff at Casa Garzotto, who steered us to wonderful food, gelato, and sunset views.

My pasta with truffles at Scuba was delicious. We came across fresh truffles several times during our Croatian adventures, and they delighted me every time.

We enjoyed a nice sunset walk along the coast before settling in with a bottle of local wine and some cushions on the white rock cliffs by the sea. Rovinj was definitely my favorite stop in Istria.

Croatia: the four-hour Istrian lunch

Valsabbion kept showing up in my research of restaurants in Istria. It’s the kind of place where the dishes are small and fancy, and there are a lot of courses. I love that kind of restaurant. I asked if they could accommodate a vegetarian. They could. I reserved.

Valsabbion is a hotel and restaurant located near the giant harbor in Pula, down at the southern tip of the Istrian Peninsula. The immediate area was disappointingly uninteresting for wandering around, but that was fine: we were there to dine.

We settled into the outdoor table that would be our base for the afternoon and accepted an aperitif of local sparkling wine. The men chose a seven-course prix fixe menu that would set the pace for our meal. We were warned it would take several hours. That was OK, we had time. We chose a local rosé to complement our meals, and we were off.

My delight started with the appetizers, presented in a series of little glasses and spoons which contained tasty spreads of local veggies, cubes of local cheeses, and interesting little fried creations.

My next course was a sort of vegetable lasagna with an abundance of fresh truffles.

Next came a layered cup of local wild asparagus, a poached egg, and a wild asparagus puree. Continue reading

Road trip to Croatia: Zagreb

Allow me to fast forward to June, which began with a little vacation in Croatia with the Regensbloggers. Our time was limited, so we only did the very top: Zagreb and the Istrian Peninsula. It proved to be a delicious first glance at a country that I’m looking forward to visiting again soon. Continue reading

Tallinn: worth a visit

As I mentioned in my first post about Estonia, we absolutely loved Tallinn. The old medieval city couldn’t have been cuter, and learning about the history of Estonia was quite fascinating. Estonia has been independent for very little of its history, which makes this particular period seem quite cherished and celebrated. Perhaps it’s this new-found pride in their country that allows the Estonians to smile politely at the herds of tourists tromping through their historical city center.

The old town is full of restaurants and bars, almost all sporting English menus to lure in tourists. There are also plenty of craft shops and galleries, most selling very nice things. We enjoyed spending a couple hours in the Linnamuuseum learning about the history of Estonia, but I preferred the personal perspective of the guide on the tour we took.

One could easily be forgiven for never leaving the old town at all, charming as it is, but we found some interesting destinations outside the city, as well. We took a combo bus/walking tour which brought us along the coast and out to the bizarre architectural structure which is the Lauluvaljak, an outdoor theater where a big folk song festival takes place every so many years. But the real excitement of the theater is the singing revolution that took place here, which helped lead Estonia to independence from the USSR in 1991.

Another favorite bit of our trip was the KUMU art museum, housed in a gorgeous new building and easy to reach by tram from the old town. Despite the museum’s oppressive rules for visitors, I was highly impressed with the quality of the collection. Lunch at the cafe was pretty good, too.

Most restaurants in Tallinn seemed a bit overpriced, but one of my favorite meals was super cheap and delicious – a garlic-and-cheese-stuffed Estonian pancake at Kompressor, which had a very student-hangout vibe (and good beer on tap).

One afternoon (or was it evening? Hard to tell when the sky gets dark at midnight.) we grabbed a beer on the terrace at Beer House, Tallinn’s only microbrewery.

I liked the juxtaposition (found on many doors) of the English “Open” with the days of the week starting with P, N, R, and L. Punday? Lorsdag?

Tallinn was a great place to spend a few days, and it inspired me to visit the other Baltic capitals someday soon. If you have less time, Tallinn can be done as a day trip from Helsinki, as the boat takes only 2 hours.

Estonia gets medieval on our asses

Greetings from Tallinn. We’ve only been here a few hours, but already we are feeling butterflies in our stomachs for this insanely adorable city. The mixture of extremely-well-preserved medieval and recently-updated buildings is irresistible, despite the fact that the place is teeming with tourists.

Because it seemed inevitable, we jumped right in and ate at the city’s most touristidisnified restaurant, the medieval Olde Hansa, for our first meal here. It exceeded all our (admittedly low) expectations, particularly in the food department. My vegetarian dish was one of the most delicious restaurant meals I’ve had in a very long time, and Scott enjoyed the duck, too. The medieval beers got mixed reviews, but the cinnamon beer was definitely the best. And the in-character serving wench was oh so endearing.

Dinner was the first time we used Estonian money. We were surprised when our change didn’t include any coins; instead, the notes went down to denominations of 2 krooni (about 13 euro-cents). Estonia will start using the euro in 2011 at the earliest.

Piran: Slovenia’s coast

If you look at a map of the area, you’ll see that Slovenia really lost out to Croatia and Italy when it came to divvying up coastline. At least they have Piran, one of the loveliest seaside towns I’ve seen in a while.

Early May seemed like a good time to visit, since the town was lively but not yet overrun with the high-season tourists.

We spent our time in Piran wandering through the narrow, winding streets and enjoying the exquisite views available from all sides of the small peninsula. There were plenty of seaside cafes and restaurants from which to take in the view, as well.

Postojnska: Spelunking in Slovenia

Slovenia is full of famous caves. We had been warned that Postojnska, the one we chose to visit (based on its proximity to our planned route) was the most disneyfied of the major caves, but we figured it was still worth a visit. Indeed, the rumors of disneyfication were only slightly exaggerated. It’s not like they dressed the stalagmites up in character costumes or anything.

The giant crowds, souvenir stands, and cheap restaurants around the entrance to the caves certainly gave off the air of a big tourist trap. We bought our overpriced (20 EUR) tickets and were filtered onto a giant people-mover. It inspired us to start singing “It’s a small world”; that is, until it started moving. The speed and lack of safety features made it clear we weren’t in an American theme park at all. The temptation to put one’s hands up roller-coaster-style was tempered by the fear of stalactites and occasional low ceilings.

Such massive people-moving capacity is necessary when your cave is visited by 600,000 visitors per year (it was a lot more pre-1989). Luckily the cave is absolutely massive. None of the photos we took began to capture the scale of the large caverns. The tour took us through about 4 kilometers of the more than 10-kilometer-long cave. Luckily we were allowed to walk through a good part of it so we could actually admire the scenery. And my goodness was it worthy of admiration.

Ljubljana: not just fun to say

Ljubljana (4 hours by car or 6 hours by train from Munich) not only fulfilled my love of places with silly names, but it also turned out to be charming little city and a fun place to hang out.

Ljubljana is quite small for a capital city, so it’s not long in the ‘touristy things to see and do’ category. Which is nice, really, because one can just focus on soaking up the atmosphere without feeling tied to a schedule of things to see and do. If we had been slightly more organized we probably would have gone on a walking tour; as it was we just wandered around and enjoyed the place, making the hilltop castle our only specific destination.

During a thunderstorm we ducked into a wine bar and discovered that Slovenia produces some very delicious whites.

One guidebook compared Ljubljana to Salzburg. We did notice a few similarities, particularly how both cities prefer to honor their famous dead citizens with chocolate balls.

Our food choices tended towards the Italian, since we were told that Slovenian food was very meat-centered. Indeed, the word “stallion” did appear multiple times on pretty much every menu we scoped out.

Evening is when this city really turns on the charm. The river is lined with lively outdoor bars and cafes, and the bridges and buildings are lit up just so. In the main square we were treated to a live performance of Slovenian pop music which had us singing all the way back to the hotel.

Slovenia is the first eastern European country to adopt the euro, making a quick trip there pleasantly free of currency exchanging. Prices are still lower than in many western European cities. We stayed at the Hotel Slon, which was very central, a good value, and had a great breakfast buffet.

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